Peeking in back of the curtain


Legendary broadcaster Kevin Harlan recently went viral on social media, thanks to his call of the ending of Furman’s come-from-behind upset of Virginia in the NCAA Men’s Tournament on March 16th. The clip, viewed well over six million times on Twitter, showed the decisive on-court action alongside the result of a camera fixed on the play-by-play team of Harlan, Dan Bonner, and Stan Van Gundy.

While most were drawn to the video by the electricity in Harlan’s words and the stunned faces of his partners (particularly Van Gundy), one underrated part of the sequence came during its climax. Just as Harlan yelled “TIMEOUT VIRGINIA!” following JP Pegues’ winning three-pointer with two seconds left, he extended his arms across both Bonner and Van Gundy, which many immediately recognized as a gesture telling them to remain silent while he finished delivering the essentials, before deferring to the atmosphere.

Let the moment breathe. Let the audience take in everything that makes college basketball special.

Harlan later admitted to Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast that he was uncomfortable with the clip being released, saying “I do think it is kind of peeking in back of the curtain, and I just think there are some things you just don’t want to see.”

Roughly one thousand miles north of the Furman-Virginia game, and a couple days later, much less metaphorical curtains created partitions between the team and media areas at Villanova’s Finneran Pavilion for the first two rounds of the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The black maze helped people in both groups navigate their way through a building that wasn’t really meant to host four school delegations at once. They pointed the way to the media workrooms and the locker rooms, provided privacy during closed practice sessions, and marked off the holding areas for cheer squads and pep bands. When a team entered or exited the court, the curtains were parted to allow an escape from the makeshift hallways. They were ubiquitous without being particularly notable, unless someone ended up on the wrong side of one and saw something they didn’t want to see.

Somewhere among the curtains, earlier than it felt on a mid-March evening, Cleveland State’s Brittni Moore, Destiny Leo and Chris Kielsmeier sat at an elevated table and tried to make enough sense of the season-ending defeat to Villanova they had just experienced to satisfy a collection of media members. After Kielsmeier’s opening statement, the first question for the two players came in: “What do you know now that you didn’t know before, for the next time you go back to the NCAA Tournament?”

“Well, this is my final year, so there won’t be a next time for me,” Moore said to her underprepared interviewer, with just a hint of “I can’t believe it’s come to this” in her voice.

Time is undefeated, it’s often said, but that juggernaut rarely plays better than it does during the month of March in college basketball, when hundreds and hundreds of seasons and careers come to an abrupt halt. A senior can offer their entire physical and mental capacity to a competition for their dreams in one second, before a decisive moment in the next sees all of it, all of it disappear into the ether. A conference championship. An NCAA Tournament run. The previous months spent mostly with the same tight-knit group of people. Most of a young lifetime defined by participation in a sport. The specifics of the ending vary from program to program and player to player, and its harshness largely depends on the success of the team, but the clock and its swift cruelty are universal.

Those in the fray are certainly aware of their eventual fate – the patron saint of mid-major bloggers coined the expression “it always ends in a loss” a couple decades ago, after all – but use every psychological trick they know to avoid the issue and keep a positive mindset. Nobody needs to think about the end so long as they can convince themselves that they’re still in the middle. Ask a player or coach about the inevitable at any point before it arrives, and they’re likely to brush off the question and offer a flippant “okay, but what if we win?” before re-focusing the conversation to the next game.

Even successful teams aren’t immune from time pressures. In fact, they have a few additional clocks in the background. It’s hard to avoid the idea that for Cleveland State, the season’s pivotal moments took place entirely within a span of 23 days. On February 23rd, the Vikings lost a game at Green Bay, a contest that essentially decided the Horizon League regular season championship. Two days later, they closed their schedule at Milwaukee. Five more days and a long trip home later, CSU hosted the Panthers in an HL quarterfinal game. The last two rounds of the conference tournament took place in Indianapolis four and five days after beating UWM for a second time, leading to the euphoria of cutting down nets and the resulting media crush that seamlessly blended into Selection Sunday. Then, less than a week after their arrival on the national stage by way of a few moments on ESPN, the Vikings departed with a first-round defeat.

It doesn’t even end there. Practically as soon as CSU’s return flight from Philadelphia landed, players entered the transfer portal, the first step towards heading somewhere else next season. In less than a month, this current iteration of the Vikings ran the spectrum of highs and lows, successes and failures, before activating a time bomb that will tear them apart for good. It’s possible that the eventual reunions of the 2022-23 Horizon League champions five, ten or twenty years down the line will enjoy full attendance, but it’s also possible that the entire roster will never be in the same place at the same time again after the close of the school year.

Five years, one season, or 23 days can pass in the bounce of a ball if nobody’s there to hold their arms out and remind you to take it all in.

As she jogged off the court for the final time as a student-athlete, Moore wore a grin to match her personality, while waving with both hands towards a surprisingly-robust section of CSU supporters. With a little context, it seemed odd; her season and career had just ended with a loss that wasn’t really in question after the first quarter. With a little more, it made perfect sense; she was simply trying to let the moment breathe, to take a couple more seconds to savor the experience and her accomplishments. The time to be reminded of the end of her run with a clichéd question was just a few minutes away, but in this instant she was still an all-conference forward gathering joy from a basketball court, as she had countless times before.

Too quickly though, she turned the corner at the edge of the stands, started down the tunnel, and crossed to the other side of the curtains on her way back to the locker room.

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Cleveland State MBA student and marketing manager by day, #HLWBB by night (and sometimes by day too, don't tell my boss). Follow me on Twitter for regular news and updates from CSU and around the league when there isn't a post covering it, and I'll see you at your favorite Horizon League arena soon.

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